About the author  ⁄ Diliman Abdulkader

Diliman Abdulkader is the director of The Kurdistan Project at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET). He was born in Kirkuk, Kurdistan.

Iraq just held its first elections since the defeat of the so called Islamic State. The victory over the terror group was led by Prime Minister Haider al Abadi as he affirmed, “our forces fully control the Iraqi-Syrian border, and thus we can announce the end of the war against Daesh.” This was in December 2017, five months before the elections took place. Prime Minister Abadi had the full backing of the United States, and was commonly known as “our guy in Baghdad.” For Abadi, the US did all it could to strengthen his position, the current administration even went as far as supporting Abadi during the Kurdish independence referendum held in September 2017 and ignored Kurdish calls to stop the Iranian funded, legalized Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) incursion into Kirkuk, just a week after President Donald Trump designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. The US was willing to do anything to keep another Maliki type figure from regaining power in Iraq. US strategy was clear, keep Iraq physically united, keep the Kurds tied to Baghdad, and ultimately weaken Iranian influence.

However, the US missed a key component of Iraqi politics, its devious foe, Muqtada al Sadr. Al Sadr is a Shiite but is also heavily nationalistic and has challenged both Iran and the US. Al Sadr has been accused numerous times by the Pentagon for American deaths during the height of the 2003 war. The Mahdi Army, led by Al Sadr, was the first Shiite militia to target US forces in Iraq following the toppling of Saddam Hussein. At one point, the Pentagon stated, “the Mahdi Army had replaced al Qaeda in Iraq as the most dangerous accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence.” Muqtada al Sadr himself will not hold the prime ministerial position but will have the ability to appoint one which align with his views.

Al Sadr’s Sairoon (The Marchers) bloc, in alliance with Iraq’s Communist Party and a handful of other parties, composed of both Sunnis and Shiites including a Kurdish faction, was victorious. Iranian backed Fatah Alliance came in second while Abadi’s Al Nasr, despite his victory against the Islamic State and retaining control of the Kurds, established a weak third and Maliki came in fourth. Turnout for the election was at an all-time low, 44.52% compared to 60% in 2014. So, what does this mean for the US?

Although Al Sadr continues his anti-American rhetoric, he is still not Iran. He has transformed himself from a former Iranian ally to nothing short of an Arab nationalist. He has met with Sunni heads of states, including the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in July 2017. If anyone can push Iranian influence out of Iraq, it is al Sadr. This may be enough for the United States’ long term policy in Iraq. But there is one catch, al Sadr demands for the total withdrawal of all US troops in Iraq, now numbering at a little over 5,000. For American policy, the hope still lies with Abadi, a possible coalition with al Sadr may convince him to allow the presence of a small footprint to continue the training of Iraqi forces and play a strategic role against Iran’s continued expansion into Iraq and beyond.

The Fatah Alliance, a pro-Iranian coalition, is backed by the PMF and Iranian General Qassim Soleimani, commander of the IRGC who surprisingly lost to Al Sadr. Iraqi’s seem unsatisfied with a strong Iranian presence within their state, and feel they’ve lost their country to the neighboring Shiite theocracy. Nonetheless, Soleimani is dedicated to pressuring the fractured lists in uniting with Iran, strengthening Tehran while undermining Baghdad. The loss comes shortly after the US withdrew from the infamous Iran nuclear deal and recent successful Israeli attacks against IRGC bases in Syria, further isolating the Islamic regime.

The alternative path for the United States in Iraq is to pivot back towards the Kurds in the north. After a feeling of betrayal among the leadership of the Kurdistan Regional Government and those who voted for the independence referendum, the Kurds are always willing to accept US support. The Kurdish house has been in disorder dating back to the 2017 referendum, and the recent elections proved no different. Mass accusations of election fraud, system hacking, threats, and gun fights in party headquarters quickly ensued. The main faction, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) align closer with al Sadr. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is deeply influenced by Iran, as are the rest of the Kurdish groups including New Generation, Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ), Change Movement, and the two small Islamic parties. The alternative path may not have a solid foothold in Baghdad, with only 58 seats but can be reconstructed that the KRG are playmakers once again as they were prior to the referendum. If the US does not strengthen the KRG, Kurds will likely shift towards either Iran or al Sadr.

Despite the United States having major setbacks due to the conflict, it remains a key player. The US invested heavily in Abadi while crippling the Kurds, only to keep a failed state intact. The unpredictability of Muqtada al Sadr may force Abadi on the sidelines to further isolate the United States. Iran, however, suffered the most and will continue to undermine the Iraqi security forces by bolstering the PMF. We may also find Iran resorting to sectarianism to delegitimatize Al Sadr’s unity coalition in the near future.

Originally published: https://securitystudies.org/guest-opinion-iraqi-elections-loss-us-even-bigger-loss-iran/

Photo: Middle East Eye

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The United States under President Trump is contemplating whether to strike the Assad regime after its usage of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb Douma this past week.

The first and obvious option for the president is to follow up on the promise he made when he tweeted “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!” on April 11th.

The United States has the backing of a strong and willing coalition to push forward a military option which includes France, the United Kingdom and even Saudi Arabia. Other leaders, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated, “Germany will not take part in military action, but we see and support that everything is done to send a signal that his use of chemical weapons is not acceptable.” Germany’s participation in a possible strike may come in other means. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated “we are not looking to be present in Syria.” Turkey’s response is a contradictory one: Prime Minister Binali Yildirim responded to the US-Russian spat as “street fighting” and continued on to say “They are fighting like street bullies. But who is paying the price? It’s civilians.” Turkey has very little credibility when it comes to protecting civilians, especially in Syria. The Turkish state just completed its illegal and aggressive air and ground campaign in northwest Syria in the predominately Kurdish canton of Afrin, which to date has a consequence of nothing short of a humanitarian crisis, Turkification process and ethnic cleansing.

From the time the President publicized his intentions to strike Syria, Assad forces vacated possible areas of targets such as airports, military air bases and outposts. Iranian proxies under the IRGC mainly Hezbollah have also dispersed critical zones that the US may see as fair game. Russian reactions to the president’s tweet were clear, “smart missiles should fly towards terrorists, not towards the lawful government.” However, the West does not see the Assad regime as the lawful or legitimate government.

The second option President Trump has at his disposal is the diplomatic leverage the US can use towards Russia due to the pressure of a possible military strike- Russia’s commitment in Syria is deeply rooted in its military presence along the Mediterranean, not with the Assad regime. The United States can guarantee to Russia it can maintain its bases without US interference, and in return the Trump administration can demand the full ousting of the Assad regime and the removal of all Iranian proxies inside Syria including IRGC and Hezbollah.

A full-blown US strike on Syria can devastate the Assad regime, especially as he is close enough to declare victory in the seven-year civil war. A banishment of the regime from Syria is a swap Russia can tolerate because it simply does not have the appetite to be driven into a whole new war against the United States. The removal of Iranian proxies and their military bases will prove to the extent Russia truly controls Syria, if at all. With Assad and its Iranian allies out of the picture, Israel too will feel more secure and less reluctant to convince President Trump to strike.

Photo: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Originally Published: http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/US-options-on-Syria-to-strike-or-not-549742

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In an unprovoked attack on American Kurdish allies in Afrin Syria, the Turks have continued a two-month long air and ground campaign with no end in sight. The Kurds have partnered with the international coalition including United States in defeating the Islamic State in Syria, most notably in recapturing Raqqa, the capital of the so called Islamic State.

To the Kurds betrayal is ever so common, the most recent example in Kirkuk as the oil-rich city was given to Shiite militias on a silver platter. A city now outside the control of Iraqi forces and riddled with ISIS once again. Just months later in Afrin, a predominately Kurdish region is being attacked by U.S. NATO partner Turkey.

Prior to the Turkish invasion, Afrin was untouched by the Assad regime and ISIS. It acted as a safe haven for hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Arabs, including Kurdish Yezedi refugees from Iraq. Today Turkey is targeting not only the indigenous Kurdish population in Afrin but Christians and Yezedi minorities as well.

The Trump administration has failed to react to Turkish President Erdogan’s aggressive actions against a staunch U.S. ally. The State Department has been cautious, hesitant to step on Erdogan’s toes while Turkey ignores all international laws including a U.N. Security Council cease-fire. But it is not too late for US lawmakers to act on this humanitarian crisis caused by America’s supposed ally. Eight members of Congress have previously signed a letter to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his recent trip to Ankara, urging to convince Erdogan to stop the incursion due to civilian deaths and injuries.

This was ignored.

Afrin is a humanitarian crisis. As Turkey continues to advance towards the center of the city, the number of civilian deaths will increase. Afrin is a bipartisan cause which demands Turkey to act within international laws and norms. Erdogan has threatened U.S. soldiers in Manbij positioned a little more than a hour away east of Afrin by stating he will “bury and strangle” anyone siding with the Kurds. Erdogan has called on his 90,000 mosques inside Turkey to recite the verse of conquest from the Quran, calling on Jihad aimed at Kurds.

Erdogan is not behaving as an ally of the U.S., but rather is shifting east in partnership with Russia and Iran. Russian president Vladimir Putin, soon set to win another term in office, is more than happy to welcome Erdogan into his sphere of influence if it means creating a rift between the NATO alliance.

If Afrin falls, two likely scenarios are to occur. The first is that Turkey will annex the territory. Turkey’s history of failing to return land to its rightful owners is a negative one. Cyprus, an EU partner, has been occupied by the Turks since 1974.

Second, if Erdogan is convinced by the Russians to not annex Afrin, he will be satisfied with forcing the Kurdish population out of their historical lands and allowing the Assad regime to move in, thus legitimatizing the regime furthermore.

It is critical that lawmakers on Capitol Hill fill the void of the administration and the State Department on their failure to act accordingly to Erdogan’s aggressive behavior. The longer the U.S. waits to respond, the more civilians deaths will occur.

Originally published at: http://thenationaldiscourse.com/us-lawmakers-can-still-undo-wrong-afrin-syria-2059/

Photo: AFP

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On January 19, the Russians proposed an ultimatum to the Kurds: Allow Assad to have full authority over Afrin, Syria, or face a Turkish invasion. The Kurds of Afrin naturally rejected the offer, prompting the Russians to withdraw their troops from the enclave. The Turks invaded the very next day.

The dilemma Kurds faced could not be swallowed by the people of Afrin. For Assad to regain additional territory over Syria was not an option, and certainly a foreign entity to rule over historical lands was an unquestionable threat. Kurds feel betrayed by Russia but expect the U.S. to take a more responsible position. Kurdish official Keno Gabriel stated, “Therefore, we hold Russia as responsible as Turkey and stress that Russia is the crime partner of Turkey in massacring the civilians in the region.”

Into the second month, the fighting has been unrelenting. The second largest NATO ally, Turkey, aligned with the so-called Free Syrian Army and Al Qaeda-affiliate groups with the permission of the Russians, are fighting the very same Kurds who battled the Islamic State.

Afrin is home to some 1.2 million people, nearly 500,000 of those are internally displaced peoples and refugees who fled from both the Assad regime and ISIS. The United Nations reported an additional 15,000 people have been displaced with over 180 civilians killed and 310 injured. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed that “Operation Olive Branch,” the Turkish name of the invasion, will be “complete in a very short time.”

Due to the unexpected length of the operation, the strategy shifted from penetrating deep into Afrin canton within days to establishing a security belt surrounding Turkey’s border. Turkey is now expected to conduct urban warfare, moving towards the city of Afrin.

The role of the U.S.

The Trump administration finds itself in a very difficult position, especially when it comes to Afrin. Although the Kurds are US allies in Syria, organized under the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), there is no U.S. stake in Afrin. Afrin is situated in northwest Syria, while the U.S. is positioned east of the Euphrates river.

Prior to the invasion, Afrin was controlled by the Kurds as it is today, but the airspace is controlled by the Russians and had Russian troops on the ground, which later withdrew. Perhaps the mistake of the Kurds was to not invite some sort of U.S. presence into Afrin earlier.

What sparked the invasion in Afrin was Washington’s call to set up a 30,000 border force with the YPG inside Syria. The Turks deliberately attacked Afrin due to the zero possibility of U.S. confrontation, Afrin was known as a weak territory of all the Kurdish regions in Syria.

The U.S. response has largely ignored Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric by continuing to back the Kurds east of the Euphrates under the SDF. However, Erdogan vows to “strangle” the Kurds regardless of U.S. support.

Erdogan has also threatened to continue his operation beyond Afrin and deep into Syrian territory, specifically Manbij. A region with heavy U.S. personnel and outposts, Manbij is strategic to United States’ long-term goal in Syria. General Joseph Votel, commander of the United States Central Command stated that “withdrawing U.S. forces from Manbij is not something we are looking into,” further angering Erdogan.

Russia’s Role

Russia has aimed to create a rift between NATO, Turkey and the US, a successful strategy so far. Russia only profited from the Afrin attacks by further strengthening its leverage over Erdogan.

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s long-term goal is to manipulate Erdogan into shifting towards the East without fully taking responsibility for his actions, and Erdogan has taken the bate.

Russia, after allowing the Turks to invade Afrin, has now allowed Syria regime forces to support the Kurds. This strategy may be an attempt to force Erdogan and Assad to mend ties, further legitimizing the Syrian regime. The biggest losers of Russia’s scheme are the Kurds. Once again, the Kurds are bullied around by more powerful state actors.

Erdogan’s goal

Erdogan’s ultimate goal in Afrin is to push back any Kurdish presence, despite the enclave being predominately Kurdish. A Kurdish-led government near Turkey’s border is viewed as a threat according to Turkey.

Erdogan’s fundamental fear of a successful Kurdish government in Syria is a spill over demand for greater self-rule in southeast Turkey, home to over 15 million Kurds. But there are a number of troublesome outcomes to this Turkish provoked war, such as prolonging the Syrian civil war, derailing a peace solution, giving rise to new Islamic State like groups while creating an uncontrollable humanitarian crisis.

Additionally, Afrin may be a launching point for a Syrian-Turkish conflict backed by Iran.

The Kurds worry that the continued silence on the part of the United States will result in an ethnic cleansing of their lands. Erdogan has promised to replace Kurds with either Turkman’s or Arab Syrian refugees from inside Turkey similar to when he threatened to flood the gates of Europe with migrants.

If the U.S. continues to allow Russia to have its way in Syria, it will undermine its own policy and will force the Kurds to rely on the Assad regime. The U.S. cannot afford to betray their partners in Syria, a sentiment all too familiar with the Kurds.

Originally published at: http://thenationaldiscourse.com/operation-olive-branch-turkish-invasion-kurdistan-1777/

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Turkey’s latest incursion into the Kurdish- held territory of Afrin, located in northwest Syria, is yet another provocative and illegal act by the fascist Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Afrin has historically been a predominately Kurdish region. Afrin survived the brutal Assad regime, al-Qaida affiliate groups and Islamic State (ISIS), and now Erdogan has opened a new offensive against the indigenous people in this small region.

Afrin has sheltered nearly 400,000 internally displaced peoples (IDPs) who have fled both Assad and ISIS in Adlib, Aleppo and surrounding areas. In addition to the IDPs, Afrin is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious enclave, unlike anywhere else in Syria.

Kurdish forces have valiantly defended the world against ISIS, all while Erdogan’s troops silently watched from a hilltop on the Turkish- Syrian border. It was Erdogan who aided ISIS, after realizing it was failing to defeat the Kurds. Erdogan took it upon himself to finally “bury” and “strangle” the Kurds.

“Operation Olive Branch,” the name given to Erdogan’s invasion of Afrin, only prolongs the Syrian civil war. This benefits jihadists and Islamic regimes like Iran and Turkey, all while disturbing civilians and those truly aiming for peace.

The Kurdish force, the Peoples Protection Units (YPG), has successfully thwarted any attempts at infiltration into the region since the civil war began. Isolated from the rest of the Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Syria, Afrin is surrounded by the Turkish military, Free Syria Army (FSA), Assad forces and a handful of terrorist organizations prepared to shake the stability of the small enclave.

Erdogan’s aim is clear: to remove Kurds from their historical lands and replace them with Turkmans. If that doesn’t work, his next step is to flood the area with Arab Syrian refugees from inside Turkey. Publicly calling for ethnic cleansing against a peaceful people seems to be the new norm for American’s NATO ally.

Just as the international community failed to protect Jews persecuted under Adolf Hitler’s brutal Nazi regime, the world is once again turning a blind eye, this time to Islamo- fascist aggression against the Kurdish nation.

The muddled US response has emboldened Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric, paving the way for continuous hostility. The Kurds look to the West, especially the US, to use its leverage with its hostile NATO partner. The Kurds in Afrin have never provoked or threatened Turks or Turkish territory, yet it is the Kurds that are being labeled “terrorists” by the Erdogan regime.

If the Kurds in Afrin truly are terrorists, would they have protected Yazidi minority persecuted by ISIS in Iraq? Would terrorists have protected Christians in the Middle East, whose numbers have dramatically decreased?

The Kurds have even taken upon themselves to defend religious minorities fearing jihadist backlash. Christian Syrian officials who have aligned with the Kurds in Afrin have stated that many Muslims have converted to Christianity inside the Kurdish regions and have not suffered any repercussions from the Kurds.

This pluralistic ideal is how the Kurds wish to govern their territories. They do not wish to enforce an Islamic-like system of government which threatens the existence of a diverse Middle East.

It is long overdue that the world finally stand up to Erdogan, protect ethnic and religious minorities in Syria, and keep the promise made to the Kurds, who have courageously fought ISIS.

Having been betrayed on many occasions throughout history by the West, the Kurds have a saying: “no friends but the mountains.”

Kurds are more than just great fighters; they desire peace and yearn for democracy in a stable, secure region with neighbors who share the same values. Unfortunately, Erdogan is the Kurds’ neighbor, and he will not rest until they are eradicated from their historical lands.

Originally published at: http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Stand-up-to-Erdogan-protect-ethnic-and-religious-minorities-in-Syria-542974
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Photo by: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

“Operation Olive Branch” is an ironic name for the aggressive military campaign carried out by Turkey against the Kurds in Afrin, Syria.

Situated in northwest Syria, Afrin has survived both the Syrian civil war and attacks from the Islamic State (IS); but when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vows to remove the “terrorists” from the region, he is referring to the Kurds — the same Kurds who have heroically fought IS and who have been allies with the U.S. in Syria; the same Kurds who have protected ethnic and religious minorities inside the war-torn country.

Afrin is home to nearly 400,000 internally displaced peoples (IDPs) who have fled the nearby provinces of Idlib and Aleppo to escape from both the Assad regime and from IS. The air and ground invasion by Turkey has also created 5,000 new IDPs since the advance began on the Jan. 20.

Erdogan has had his sights set on Afrin for quite some time, due to it being an isolated region separate from the rest of the Kurdish-held territories, and due to the lack of an American presence. Afrin is surrounded not only by Turkey, but also by the so-called Free Syrian Army, Al Qaeda affiliate terrorist groups, and the Syrian regime. Erdogan wishes to ethnically cleanse the safe enclave and either replace them with Turks or flood the territory with Arab Syrian refugees from inside Turkey. Furthermore, Erdogan has vowed to advance beyond Afrin into Kurdish-held regions east of the Euphrates River where there are American forces positioned. If Erdogan follows through on his promise, this could harm U.S. soldiers and jeopardize his ties with the U.S., and also be an act of war against a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) partner.

To make matters worse, the outcome of Turkey’s aggression into Syria will give birth to new Islamic State-like groups, extending the almost seven-year-long civil war and ending any possible peace solution available to the war-torn country.

Instead of calling for an end to the ongoing Turkish aggression into Afrin, the international community has turned a blind eye. Seeing and capitalizing on this display of weakness, Erdogan has bolstered his position by threatening anyone who gets in his way, including American and European powers.

The Kurds have vowed to resist Erdogan’s destructive campaign, but are at a disadvantage due to Turkey’s air power. The Kurdish forces fighting under the People’s Protection Units (YPG) also have limited resources and light ammunition, while the Turks have unlimited means and heavy weaponry including German-made Leopard tanks. Kurds are known to be great fighters, but it is hard to determine how much longer they can hold off Turkish aggression, which has failed to penetrate deep into Afrin so far.

Erdogan’s aim is to destabilize a prosperous and stable Kurdish region. Despite the beating war drums surrounding Afrin, the Kurds have been able to put forth an inclusive and pluralistic safe haven in which both men and women are represented, ethnic and religious minorities are given a voice, and two successful rounds of elections have been implemented.

The Kurds are not asking their partners, including the U.S., to put soldiers’ lives on the line, nor are they asking for money or weaponry. The Kurds of Afrin are simply asking for an end to the unprovoked Turkish offensive into a historically Kurdish territory. Responding too late will give the world yet another humanitarian crisis it cannot afford.

Originally published at: http://www.kolhabirah.com/index.php/israel-global/op-ed/1176-turkey-is-coming-for-the-kurds

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Kirkuk, the oil rich province in dispute for nearly a century, may be the upcoming scene of one of Iraq’s longest-brewing post-ISIS conflicts. Located in northern Iraq under the de jure authority of the central government, the province is currently protected by the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Peshmerga forces. Kirkuk may provide a battleground for an upcoming struggle that may be necessary to formalize the divorce between Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, and Erbil, the Kurdish capital. The President of the KRG, Masoud Barzani has shown no sign of parting ways with the city, promising to protect and return it to Kurdistan. Barzani vowed “any force that thinks of taking Kirkuk by force will be faced by the whole of Kurdistan. We will defend it until the last one of us.” Whether through force or dialogue, the Kurds seem determined to push back external meddling.

The city of Kirkuk itself has historically housed a Kurdish majority with a Turkoman minority from the Ottoman Empire, later facing an influx of Arabs, first accompanying the British with the discovery of oil, then with Saddam Hussein’s Arabization campaign. Over time, the lack of Kurdish influence over the city has weakened Kurdish culture, diminishing Kurdish hopes of regaining what they believe is, historically, theirs. It was not until 2014 that this all changed; with the rise of ISIS came the collapse of the Iraqi army. The region witnessed their retreat, first from Mosul and later Kirkuk, leaving a security vacuum waiting to be filled –  the Kurds seized the moment, declaring to protect the city and promising to never again lose hold of Baba Gurgur (the Kurdish name for Kirkuk, meaning Father of Eternal Fire).

There are ethnic, religious, and resource-based struggles inflicting the whole of Iraq – especially the city of Kirkuk. This can only mean one thing: the city is ripe for conflict. As the Kurds gear up for an upcoming independence referendum on September 25th, their military gains have made them vulnerable on multiple fronts. Under the protection of the Peshmerga, Kirkuk’s society and security has improved dramatically; the city has witnessed infrastructural developments including new roads, malls, and hotels, as well as remarkable social harmony where Arabs, Turkmans and Kurds are seen living side-by-side in peace. The Governor of Kirkuk, Dr. Najmadin Karim – a Kurd himself – has managed to create a sort of sanctuary city, distant from the preconceived narratives of a conflicted province riddled with historic grievances. The governor has taken it two steps further, first by raising the Kurdish national flag alongside the Iraqi flag on government buildings – signaling a strong Kurdish authority – and second by announcing that Kirkuk, a disputed territory under the Iraqi Constitution Article 140, will officially take part in the Kurdish independence referendum.

The Kurds are not historically known to have kind neighbors. The call to include Kirkuk in what is already a controversial referendum has received the unwanted attention of Iran, Turkey, Baghdad and their proxies. This is a worrying development for the Kurds – external influence has the ability to unravel the cohesion established by the Kurds inside the city.

Baghdad deems that Kurds have taken advantage of the collapse of the country since 2014, and that these attempts by Governor Dr. Karim will only benefit ISIS. A Sunni Iraqi MP Mohammed Karbouli stated that this issue, “would trigger ethnic fighting and extend the life of the Islamic State” while Prime Minister Haider Abadi’s spokesperson Saad Hadithi called the decision “illegal and unconstitutional.”

Iran, playing a major role in shaping internal Iraqi politics since the withdrawal of US troops in 2011 under the Obama Administration, is also opposed to the move. Iran has threatened to unleash its Shiite proxy, the infamous Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) if necessary. The PMF is legally the responsibility of the central government of Baghdad, but is fully funded by Tehran. Shiite nationalism has threatened to further ignite conflict based on ethnic lines.

Turkey, an economic partner to the KRG and a strong influencer among the city’s Turkman minority, has warned through its Foreign Ministry that “the persistent pursuit of this dangerous movement will not serve the interests of the KRG or Iraq.” The rival Turks staunchly believe Kirkuk is historically Turkish, purging Kurdish claims and recently reaffirmed by the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli, that “Kirkuk is Turkish. It will not be subjected to assimilationist aims and ethnic cleansing.”

In what was thought to be an upcoming victory among Iraqis and Kurds with the defeat of ISIS near, the reality seems to hint that Iraq will return to its normal pre-ISIS discords established by Saddam and left by former PM Nouri Maliki. But this “normal” has a new face, one that is fashioned by external coercions. Differing historical powers have ruled Kirkuk at one point or another throughout its history, but none are willing to lessen their hold.

Kurds face a challenging dilemma – they must calculate the value of Kirkuk. For Kurds living inside the city, the participation in the independence referendum means two things. First, it is reclaiming a long historical right, in essence correcting a false narrative forced by Arabs and Turks. Second, the push to be a part of an independent Kurdistan acts as a bridge – one that may once again unite them with their fellow countrymen.

The Kurds require support from the US if they are willing to risk the stability achieved in both Kirkuk and the KRG, a backing they do not have. Possible military action against Kirkuk is not in any parties’ interest. Since 2014, Kurds have established a safe haven protecting all minorities, and disrupting the stability would only be perceived as an attack on the city’s citizens and not the Kurdish authority. This would likely only strengthen the position of the Kurds. Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara may have to accept the reality on the ground – that Kurds have proven to be a highly effective fighting forces against ISIS. The Kurds have successfully governed Kirkuk looking beyond ethnic divisions and embraced the diversity, something both Arabs and Turks have failed to do throughout history.

If the dispute over Kirkuk takes a violent path it will inevitably continue to destabilize not only the KRG but Iraq too and will likely spillover to Turkey and Iran, giving birth to another sectarian and ethnic war no side can afford – or wants. A peaceful solution through open dialogue is certainly the right path. If confronted, do Kurds have it in them to continue onto another war, post-ISIS?  The next war may be more difficult, costly, and will no longer be held to a coalition between the PMF, Iraqi Army, and the Peshmerga. Their fighting forces will likely be far more isolated. Nonetheless, it carries with it the very real possibility of defining a future Kurdish state.

Originally published at Raddington Report.

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Syria’s six-year long civil war is slowly diminishing, with Bashar al Assad as the unbreakable victor. Multiple allies have backed the Arab nationalist Ba’athist government, including Iran, Russia and Hezbollah who shifted the direction of the brutal war in Assad’s favor.

Despite Assad’s determination to clinch onto power regardless of the Syrian people’s aspirations for a change of government, one group, the Kurds, refused to continue to be ruled by the tyrant. Through hard fought battles and loss of many lives, the Kurds – Syria’s largest ethnic minority – managed to establish a secure region in the north much different from the rest of the country in what they call Rojava (West Kurdistan).

At the start of the war, the Kurds of Rojava had little interest in battling the Assad regime or siding with the opposition forces. But this changed when Islamic State (IS) attempted to pivot north towards a small Kurdish town of Kobani, bordering Turkey. Kobani was surrounded; on one side was IS, on the other the Turkish military, watching idly in the hope that Kurdish town would plummet. The President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even went as far as saying “Kobani is about to fall.” But Kobani never fell, instead becoming a symbol of resilience which has inspired the success of the Kurds to date.

Today, under the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) a coalition of majority Kurdish but also Arab, Turkmen, Assyrian and Armenian fighters have pushed back the Islamic State to near nothing. The SDF controls large of swaths territory west of the Euphrates river, weakening IS strongholds. The Syrian army has chosen its battles, combatting opposition forces to regain strategic cities rather than concerning themselves with the Kurds in the North. But this has backfired. The Kurdish forces are now strong, well organized and defiant, helped by the backing of US and Russian forces. To make matters worse for Assad, they now completely govern themselves. And so he is faced with a tough choice: intervene in Rojava and reclaim the land through the use of force, or accept that Syria is no longer whole.

It is true that the Kurds in Syria have established their own safe-haven, and are now preparing to hold local council and regional assembly elections. The Kurds have however attempted to quell fears of total separation, insisting that they are not seeking independence. The regime hopes this is true: Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad stated that “the elections will be a joke. Syria will never allow any part of its territory to be separated” and Assad described the self-governance in the region as “temporary”. Separation would also be a blow for Turkey; its president Recep Tayyip Erdogan fears such move will push Kurds in his own country to demand autonomy and has been accused of aligning with the Islamic state to prevent further Kurdish advances. A former ISIS communications technician stated “ISIS commanders told us to fear nothing at all [from Turkey], because there was full cooperation with the Turks and they reassured us that nothing will happen…the Kurds were common enemy for both ISIS and Turkey.”

Yet Syria’s main ally in the war, Russia, has been open to granting the Kurds autonomy. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov met with opposition parties in Moscow earlier this year to discuss a draft Syrian constitution which pushed for “allowing for autonomy of Kurdish regions.”

Ultimately, the Assad regime must decide how it will prevent the Kurds from moving forward with their ambitions. Although agreeing upon a solution with Russia and the US as mediators is the ideal condition, it is not likely that Kurds will give up territories they have fought for – or that residents within such regions would want to live under Assad’s government ever again. But if Assad does decide to forcefully intervene, the least likely scenario, it may end his regime once and for all. His government does not have the manpower, resources or time to fight on another front after years of war. His allies Russia will not fight the Kurds, and Iran will shy away from advancing north due to the presence of US forces.

The ball is once again in Assad’s court – either make a mistake similar to 2011 when he declined to implement reform or step down during the Arab Spring protests, or commit to a peaceful solution and let the Kurds be. A model comparable to the Iraqi one could be implemented, where it granted the Kurds autonomy under the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) with its own border, military, parliament and laws. But this may not be the most convincing resolution as the KRG is preparing to divorce Iraq with its independence referendum on September 25, a move Baghdad calls “illegal.”

Syrians should not suffer any longer due to personal ambitions of the regime or power struggles of its allies. The final phase of the civil war is near, the Islamic State is nearly defeated and all actors involved are scrambling to gain last minute spoils, which is not limited to territory but natural gas and oil fields, access to dams along the Euphrates River, access to the Mediterranean Sea and Iran is seeking its long ambitions of completing the Shiite crescent through a land bridge from Iraq, Syria into Lebanon threatening Israel.

Assad’s Kurdish question could have been answered long ago, but the Kurds in Syria have reaped what they have sown: the Syrian regime too weak to call the shots and can no longer determine the future of the entirety of the country.

Originally published at Raddington Report.

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I recently traveled to Israel as part of a study abroad program through the American University in Washington, DC. As a master’s student concentrating on peace and conflict resolution and as a Kurd from northern Iraq, I was curious about the intense hostility toward Jews in the Middle East, the negative bias in the mainstream media and the continuous antisemitic lectures and activities on college campuses, including my own university.

My trip to Israel was unique. I was able to travel there through the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Having departed from the Sulaymaniyah International Airport in the KRI, I was sent off with a smile among my fellow Kurds without any shame, despite the fact that a trip to Israel is taboo among Middle Easterners.

Upon arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport, I was briefly held back by security due to concerns about a first-time traveler to Israel coming from an Arab state with no diplomatic relations (Iraq). This was understandable and expected, I too expect heavy screening towards foreigners entering the KRI due to the hostility of the region. I successfully and peacefully passed through airport security with a visa that would allow me to stay beyond my permitted time.

My first interaction with an Israeli was with a taxi driver driving me to my hotel. His conversations were animated, his politics realistic. He said he doesn’t care what religion one believes in, he just wants to live in peace. I tested the waters and told him I was Kurdish and he was very excited.

His eyes lit up and he immediately called for establishing a Kurdistan without my prodding. “That was easy,” I said to myself.

My time in Tel Aviv was brief, a little over a week. But what the city offered was unprecedented to me, especially in the Middle East. It is modern, filled will young Israelis enjoying life at the beaches, nightlife spots, restaurants. It is also historical and diverse. I witnessed Muslims and Jews intermingling, mosques calling for prayer, Arab families enjoying their time together on the beaches after breaking their fast. No one bothered others; everyone minded their own business. I tried hard to discover instances of negative interactions between the two peoples, but they even smoked hookah together at the local café.

I thought that maybe Tel Aviv is in its own little bubble, distant from the reality we witness every day in the media, so together with my class, we took a bus ride to Jerusalem.

I was excited, having heard so much about the ancient city – from the time when the Kurdish sultan Saladin Ayubi conquered the Old City from the Crusaders to the current Arab-Israeli conflict.

After a short ride, we checked into our dorms and got a tour of Hebrew University, where we would be studying for the rest of the trip. Hebrew University has a beautiful campus situated on a hill overlooking the Old City. Without having any knowledge of the school, I assumed there would be only Israelis studying there, but again I was wrong. Young college students included Jews, Muslims, women with and without headscarves all together at this institution. I was still struggling to find the picture that the Arab world and the mainstream media have painted.

Throughout my time in Jerusalem I had the opportunity to speak with locals and elected officials, Arabs and Israelis at cafés, restaurants, bars, in the Muslim quarter, the Knesset, the shuk (outdoor bazaar) and so on. My interactions with Palestinians took place in the Muslim quarter, at the local restaurants and tea houses – all men, as talking with the women was looked down upon.

I entered the Old City through the Damascus Gate, although I was warned to not enter there because the site had been the scene of stabbings and attacks. I thought to myself, “I’ll be fine – I’m from Kirkuk, a far more dangerous city.”

Wanting to experience the real Jerusalem, I stayed away from popular tourist sites such as the shopping centers and famous high-end restaurants and explored the Old City and the surrounding area for the next few weeks. I made a few Palestinian friends over hookah and Arabic coffee. They tried to not discuss politics but were also keen on labeling me Iraqi. I accepted their opinions, but they were more excited about America and the dream of one day moving there.

I also visited the walls built around the Palestinian territories.

My feelings were mixed, but having personally experienced war and refugee camps from Arab governments, Syrian President Bashar Assad and former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, a Palestinian ally, I thought although it is not the ideal solution for either side – safety and security are better than terrorism.

One conversation that would stick with me was with a uniformed IDF soldier in his early 20s. I approached him while he was sitting alone having lunch, and began to slowly move past small talk. He was proud to serve his nation and was ready to defend it both literally and verbally.

He wasn’t a “tough guy,” he simply loved his nation.

He mentioned although it is mandatory for him to serve in the IDF, he would have done it regardless. He was also curious where I was from. When I replied Kurdistan, he shook his head in sadness, acknowledging that we are without a state and thanked me for our people fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

We had the privilege of visiting the Knesset. Thanks to my professor, who attempted to keep the meetings with guest MKs balanced, we were given views from the far Left, Right and everything in between. The most surprising comments were made by MK Taleb Abu Arar of the United Arab List, who openly declared Israel an undemocratic terrorist country while supporting Hamas and staunchly backing Turkish President Erdogan. He ignored my questions about double standards on Kurds in Turkey. I thought to myself, “You are calling Israel undemocratic? But you have a seat in their Knesset, you’re openly supporting Hamas and calling the government terrorist? Interesting.”

Unfortunately, the night before the end of the program, when I was having coffee inside Damascus Gate, a terrorist attack occurred. An IDF soldier by the name of Hadas Malka, only 23, was stabbed and lost her life after being rushed to the hospital. The gates were shut down, the city was on alert and Palestinians flocked to the streets to protest. Tel Aviv may be in its own bubble, but Jerusalem is fragile. People do want peace on both sides. We just have to move beyond those who incite terrorism. Israel is not the horror movie we witness on TV or by academics – it is a country simply striving to survive in a hostile region.

Photo credit: Israel Bardugo
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